Thirteen bills from various committees were consolidated to make up the version of the legislation that was brought to the House floor on Thursday. Representatives overwhelmingly supported initial approval of the 144 page bill, H.868 in a vote of 134 to 0. The legislation is up for third reading on Friday.
The bill seeks to boost workers and companies of all stripes through various measures, including the establishment of a Vermont Agricultural Credit Program and the allocation of community development grants.
The actual appropriations in the bill from the general fund are $70,000. But the bill draws money from many other places and offers tax incentives, loans and grants to stimulate economic activity throughout the state.
The bill increases by about $25 million the amount of money the Vermont Economic Development Authority may lend and simplifies the process for obtaining loans through VEDA.
The legislation authorizes the state treasurer to invest $1 million of current agency funds into the Vermont Community Loan Fund and would establish a committee to offer guidance to the treasurer on the funding priorities in the state.
The bill would use $125,000 of the Vermont Yankee economic development fund — money set aside to offset job losses from the plant’s shutdown — to invest it in Brattleboro and Bennington County.
Also, the legislation would provide greater flexibility for disabled Medicaid recipients to work without losing benefits, by raising the income limit. The limit in Medicaid benefits would be set at $10,000 for an individual and $15,000 for a couple.
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The bill commissions a study proposed by State Treasurer Beth Pearce to investigate the feasibility of establishing a public retirement plan available to private-sector employees. The study would also survey the current state of retirement savings for Vermonters.
In a study, a number of state departments, including Tax and Financial Regulation, would review and report on the laws surrounding Internet-based lodging companies like Airbnb and HomeAway.
The bill also contains new oversight provisions for the Vermont Employment Growth Incentive, a controversial program commonly known as VEGI. It offers tax incentives for companies to create or retain jobs in Vermont.
Most of the oversight provisions came in an amendment from the House Committee on Ways and Means.
The provisions, among other things, would extend the program for just three years and require the Joint Fiscal Committee to approve any changes to the program outside of the legislative session.
The amendment also calls for a cost-benefit analysis of VEGI that includes recommendations to “ensure incentives will benefit the creation and growth of more small businesses.”
Another VEGI amendment that passed came from Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, and would ensure that no VEGI money would go to corporations that are known polluters and are in poor standing with the Agency of Natural Resources or the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
The VEGI oversight amendments drew broad praise, including from Rep. William Botzow, D-Pownal, who chairs the House Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.
“(VEGI) is an important program,” Botzow said on the floor Thursday. “It’s also a program that’s been, frankly, controversial for a number of years.”
“Our goal, I think in Commerce, and in Ways and Means, is to have it actually live up to being the excellent program that it is,” Botzow added. “And I think the best way to do that is to make sure that we stay involved.”
The general fund allocations in the bill are $35,000 for the Vermont Arts Council and $35,000 for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to give grants for companies to study the feasibility of worker cooperatives and employee stock ownership.
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